In Joseph Conrad's cynical, politically influenced work Under Western Eyes, the author takes steps in describing themes of terrorism, the degradation of character, and the suffering experienced by ordinary people caught in the wave of political influence. Mr. Conrad makes a poignant statement describing how two factions of society lived in pre-Revolutionary Russia when it is stated, "only that a belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness."
It's within this nature of humanity that writer/director Trey Edward Shults positions his new film It Comes At Night; within the turmoil that humanity faces with the unknown, within the natural distrust that exists deep in the souls of humans, within the emotions that motivate choices to act without compassion. In the same way the genre of horror effectively plants its most troublesome and terrifying roots with these same elements, blossoming monsters, madmen, and demons, Mr. Shults builds a film that is an unnerving look into the monsters that humans can become in the face of fear, desperation, and loneliness.
An unknown terror has forced humanity into isolation, survival has come down to wearing gas masks and carrying weapons whenever you venture outside. Paul (Joel Edgerton) runs a meticulous house with Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), maintaining strict rules that includes not going out at night, keeping a certain red door locked at all times, and separating themselves from any other outside human interaction. One evening, a young man named Will (Christopher Abbott) tries to break into Paul's home, and after a torturous interrogation, Paul compassionately decides to invite Will and his family into his home. Paranoia and distrust take over, making survival a deadly game for the two groups.
Mr. Shults' first feature film, Krisha, was an uncompromising character study that functioned on the surface as a drama but underneath was composed in the same way a filmmaker would craft a horror film. It Comes at Night operates very much the same, acting as an analysis on how people function in a world without rules, in a world where the element of trust has all but disappeared. Placing characters within this treacherous environment provides the director opportunities to build tension through the interactions of the people living together and a mystery concerning how the characters will react during certain situations.
However, it also functions with all of the mannerisms of a horror film, from the trepid motions into the darkness, the manipulative camera movements, and the use of sound to heighten atmosphere. The monster here is keenly crafted as noises and movements in the darkness of the woods. In a nice touch, the camera will many times linger on a specific point of perspective—a red door, a tree, an open road—just long enough to make the viewer investigate the frame, looking for something that isn't always there.
Mr. Shults wisely keeps the emphasis on the real monster in the film, which is humanity. You get the feeling early on that something isn't right with the people in the movie. You can guess that this group of people have already had to make terrible choices along their journey into obscurity. For Paul, friendship and companionship are aspects long forgotten, and the composition of the family dynamic doesn't seem to exist. Paul's relationship with Sarah and Travis is uncomfortable and awkward, so when he encounters a more traditional family unit, he displays compassion—this family in need is sort of a symbol of hope in a hopeless world. Watching this group of people progress through different stages of trust is fascinating, and watching their ultimate dismantling is heartbreaking.
The film maintains a deliberate pace, never getting too far ahead of itself, though in a few moments not offering enough narrative development to achieve the same impact that it accomplishes with its third act. This film is less a horror film and more a meticulously paced character study, though that doesn't make it any less scary. It Comes At Night may not be the film that makes you jump in your seat, but it's the kind of film that will stay with you long after you leave the theater.
Movie Score: 4/5